Developing Intercultural Communication skills in the Global/International University

Image credit: D Brown, Pixabay, CC0

In this extra post, Meg Maclean spotlights the Intercultural Communication Skills (ICS) course within the English Language Education course collection ALLIS. Presenting salient findings from their pilot study, Meg explains how the course can help all students develop intercultural competencies while gaining proficiency in academic language and literacies. Meg is a Teaching Fellow in English Language Education in the Centre for Open Learning.

The UK attracts a large number of international students every year and at The University of Edinburgh international students constitute around a third. Last year, 62% of the students and staff were domiciled outside the UK. Whilst bringing many benefits to all members of the university community, research suggests that internationalism can bring communication challenges (Bond, 2020, Spencer-Oatey & Dauber 2021, and more locally Green 2016). This was the impetus for the development of a new speaking communication course which embraces intercultural objectives.

English Language Education’s proposal for an Intercultural Communication Skills (ICS) course was approved in November 2022. After much external investigation, as well as reaching out to colleagues across the university and drawing on salient literature in the field, a draft scheme of work was developed. The course aims to develop students’ intercultural competence: attitudes, skills and knowledge to communicate effectively with diverse groups at the University and beyond, while avoiding essentialising, reductionist notions of culture. The following intended learning outcomes (ILOs) were defined:

On completion of this course, students will be able to:

  1. Articulate an understanding of culture, drawing on intercultural communication theory and class discussion.
  2. Analyse and examine their intercultural experiences in order to overcome barriers to intercultural understanding.
  3. Recognise the intercultural communicative competencies they bring to groups.
  4. Demonstrate their group-working skills and mindsets through classroom practice for application at university and the global workplace.

The course is housed within English Language Education course collection ALLIS (Academic Language and Literacies for In-sessional Study). This course collection is available to all students across the university, and courses are student-centred, drawing on students’ input and providing space for students to co-construct knowledge and understanding. As the courses are multidisciplinary, students can come from diverse disciplinary backgrounds, and are required to work together, interculturally.

This multidisciplinary course collection was relaunched and renamed in September 2022, because the previous name, ELSIS – English Language Support for International Students, differentiated international students, and positioned this group as in deficit and requiring support, purporting a remedial perspective. By repositioning ALLIS, course collection identity now better aligns with UoE values of inclusion, equality, diversity and internationalisation. All students now have the opportunity to benefit from our courses, regardless of background or nationality.

This inclusive course collection seems a germane context for Intercultural Communication Skills. However, ALLIS (taught) courses are short at only four weeks. Therefore a clear constraint for course development has been space, and managing student expectations. The final agreed unit topics, which we see as covering core aspects of Intercultural Communication Skills (ICS) are:

Unit 1: Defining Culture

Unit 2: Values and communication

Unit 3: Discussions and group rapport

Unit 4: The future: Overcoming barriers and building rapport to succeed in global teams

Pilot Course

As this is a new area of development for English Language Education (ELE), I was motivated to run a pilot course, which was unprecedented in ALLIS course collection.  To garner different perspectives (thick description), I integrated reflection tasks and designed a questionnaire to collect student feedback for each session; and organised colleague observations using a specially-designed observation instrument.

This process shaped the pilot course, integrating student suggestions where appropriate. Examples include: more explicit links to task theoretical underpinnings, and including more examples for concepts and frameworks. The pilot has also informed the final course: there will be surfaced cohesive links between tasks to ensure a coherent flow of activities; adequate time for silent critical reflection will be incorporated to encourage transfer of concepts and communication skills to students’ interactions and intercultural encounters on programmes, and beyond, as suggested through observations. We will also ensure teacher’s notes are detailed and fully comprehensive to share course principles and approach with teaching staff.

Another benefit of the pilot was evidencing demand for the course. To recruit students I approached contacts around Schools, and the course was oversubscribed. In addition, promotion and also collaboration opportunities across the University have been generated.

Some aspects participants enjoyed:

“The format of discussing with other people”

“It was highly insightful, and a great blend of analytical frameworks & theories with discussion spaces”

“Good course design; Rich knowledge input; interesting classmates”

“I think what I’ve acquired in this session are some values that will be integrated into my thinking pattern”

In informal feedback, students noted that the course is particularly useful for those preparing for study abroad.

The ALLIS course collection (Academic Language and Literacies for In-sessional Study) seems an appropriate context for Intercultural Communication Skills, where comunication in increasingly internationalised academic contexts is foregrounded.  Effective communication in these contexts should be underpinned by intercultural competence, valuing diversity. ALLIS multidisciplinary courses create an inclusive space for students to communicate and co-construct conventions and conceptualisations, promoting transferability to their programmes. We can partner students in consolidating their identity as members of their academic disciplines, or cultures, through exploration and contrast.  Students can develop proficiency in academic language and literacies, and now, also develop intercultural competencies.

To apply for ICS

Students and staff will be able to find out more about ALLIS courses and apply on ELE’s in-sessional courses page here. 


Bond, B. (2020). Making Language Visible in the University, Multilingual Matters.

Green, C. (2016) ‘Time to talk about talking? : A qualitative study of the factors affecting non-native English speaking students’ levels of participation in seminar discussion groups and cross-cultural group work on taught Masters programmes in a UK university and the impact upon the experiences of native English speaking students’. Unpublished MSc (TESOL) dissertation, The University of Edinburgh.

Spencer-Oatey, H. & Dauber, D. (2021). Global Competencies and Classroom Interaction in Dippold, D. & Heron, M. (Eds.) Meaningful Teaching Interaction at the Internationalised University (pp. 55-68). Routledge.

photograph of the authorMeg Maclean

Meg Maclean is a Teaching Fellow in English Language Education in the Centre for Open Learning and the Coordinator of the In-Sessional Course collection Academic Language and Literacies for In-sessional Study for taught students. Her current scholarship interest is inclusivity in the curriculum.

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